Equity & Diversity

Immigration Proposals Could Aid School Hiring Efforts

By Mary Ann Zehr — April 07, 2006 5 min read
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Educators have several reasons to follow the volatile debate over immigration in Congress—a debate that ground to a halt this week before lawmakers’ spring recess.

In the long term, some of the plans would allow more teachers from other countries to work in schools, or change the enforcement of rules governing other school-related jobs. More immediately, efforts to crack down on undocumented immigrants promised to intensify rallies planned for April 10 across the country.

Most students who had skipped school over the previous two weeks to protest an immigration bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives were back in class this week. The students had rallied against the measure, which would make it a crime to be in the country without legal sanction or to help an illegal immigrant. (“Students Sound Off on Immigration,” April 5, 2006.)

Pro-immigrant groups scheduled this week’s protests in more than 65 cities to oppose the House bill and put pressure on Congress to pass legislation that the groups deem more acceptable.

Late this week, a bipartisan group of senators had forged a compromise on dealing with illegal immigration. But by April 7, they lacked enough votes to close debate on the measure, a signal that the legislation lacked enough support to pass the full Senate.

“At this point, everything is up in the air,” said Erica Chabot, the deputy press secretary for Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt. “We’re back at square one.”

The bipartisan compromise had offered a middle-of-the-road approach to illegal immigration between a restrictive House bill and a more permissive Senate bill.

Under the bipartisan plan:

• Those who have lived in this country for at least five years would be put on a path toward citizenship if they are continuously employed, pay fines and back taxes, and learn English.

• Those undocumented people who have been in the country for two to five years would have to leave and then could immediately re-enter as temporary workers, and wouldn’t be guaranteed citizenship.

• Lastly, anyone who has been in the country for less than two years would have to leave.

The amendment would not alter the Judiciary Commitee bill’s inclusion of a provision to make it easier for school districts to hire teachers from foreign countries—a development that could have one of the most direct effects on schools of all the immigration measures being debated.

That would raise the cap for the number of H1B visas in fiscal 2007 to 115,000. That’s up from the current maximum of 65,000 for such visas, which go to skilled workers. It would also establish a cap that would change with the demand for skilled foreign-born workers: If the cap were reached in any year, the maximum number of H1B visas permitted for the following year would rise by 20 percent.

“That’s excellent news for us,” said Deborah Ignagni, the director of recruitment for certified employees for the 720,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District. The district has 154 teachers with H1B visas this school year teaching mathematics, science, and special education—chronic shortage areas for Los Angeles and other districts.

An H1B visa authorizes teachers and other skilled workers to work in the United States for three years. The employees can renew the visas one time for an additional three years, and many eventually obtain green cards, which enable them to work in the country indefinitely.

Undocumented Workers

For the most part, though, experts on school employment say that the immigration bills proposed in the House and Senate would have little effect on the hiring practices of schools.

Frank D. Bean, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine, said it’s unlikely undocumented immigrants are working for schools as teachers because they would have to prove teacher certification in the United States and show other documents.

But he said undocumented immigrants are possibly working for schools indirectly. They might be hired by construction companies or their subcontractors to build schools, or by companies that provide janitorial or food services, he said.

A study released last month by the Washington-based Pew Hispanic Center estimates that undocumented workers are concentrated in jobs in private households, food manufacturing, farming, furniture manufacturing, construction, textile manufacturing, food services, administration and support services, hotels, and other types of manufacturing jobs.

A 1986 immigration law requires employers to file a form with the U.S. government saying they looked at the papers of employees who are immigrants, according to Mr. Bean. “They don’t have to check for validity,” he added. He and others say penalties for hiring unauthorized immigrants are not enforced.

That could change if any of the proposals in Congress becomes law.

The House and the Senate Judiciary Committee bills seek stricter rules for employers to check documents of employees. They also contain stronger penalties against employers who hire undocumented immigrants, said Michele Waslin, the director of immigration-policy research for the National Council of La Raza, a Latino advocacy group in Washington.

While undocumented workers may be helping to build schools, districts typically wouldn’t be held liable for hiring them, according to Julie K. Underwood, the dean of the education school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a specialist in school law. “You write it into the contract to make sure the company is responsible and monitors the employment status of people they hire,” she said.

Parent Involement

Representatives from the National Council of La Raza and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF, said this week they support the Senate Judiciary Committee bill because it provides comprehensive immigration reform, rather than the House bill and a separate bill that has been introduced by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., both of which focus on enforcement.

They applauded the inclusion in the Senate Judiciary Committee bill of a provision that would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented youths who graduate from U.S. high schools and attend college or participate in military service for at least two years.

They also endorsed the part of the Senate Judiciary Committee bill that offers a way for undocumented workers to become legal.

Ms. Underwood noted that K-12 public schools are obligated under a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision, in Plyler v. Doe, to provide an education to children regardless of their immigration status. “From the school’s perspective of the primary mission of educating the kids, the immigration status of the parent is secondary,” she said.

Peter Zamora, a legislative lawyer for MALDEF, added that legalization for children’s parents could improve parent involvement in schools. “There’s a relationship between government and individuals in this community that is not based on trust,” he said. “Bring this population out of the shadows; have them participate in all facets of American society, including school.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 12, 2006 edition of Education Week as Immigration Proposals Could Aid School Hiring Efforts

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